Improv: yuk yuk comedy or a useful Design tool?

Chicago is the “improv capital of the world” and I’ve had the pleasure of spending several years studying, performing and directing improv around Chicago. So this article practically jumped off the page at me, as I’m always fascinated with ways my personal life can interact with and influence my work life, and vice versa.

Peter Robbie is teaching a Design Thinking class at Dartmouth where he incorporates improvisation techniques to enhance brainstorming processes and perhaps uncover new opportunities that we might otherwise ignore.

One of the fundamental principles of improvisation is the idea of “yes, and”, meaning that you agree with (YES) any idea that is thrown out there and then build upon that idea (AND) in order to push the idea way past the point of rejection (i.e. devil’s advocate). Improvisation also focuses heavily on listening skills and paying attention to the most minute details in order to use that information later, to connect the dots and find interesting new opportunities that may never have seen the light of day.

How does this relate to Workplace Design? For starters, this article got me thinking about how we typically get to know our clients and get the ball rolling on a Design process. Personally, I think we should be spending a lot more time with clients in their offices. Let’s be workplace anthropologists. Really jump in and fully experience how our clients live in their workspaces. As Designers, we are all very attentive people, able to pick up on the tiniest details, especially when they are out of place. It’s one thing for a Facilities Manager or a client steering committee to tell us that their staff needs, for example, more conference rooms. Let’s call this the “raw data”. But what more could we learn if we dove deeper and spent a full day or two in the clients office, really interacting with them, playing the “yes, and” game.

I feel as though we often stop at the “yes” portion of the process. YES, we understand you need 15% more conferencing space. It’s listed right there in your program along with all your other requirements (raw data). We’re really good incorporating that raw data into pretty space plans. But take it to the next level (AND). If we get past the raw data and spend some time with our clients, perhaps we could gain more insight into how a client works, rather than simply giving them the tools they already work with in a prettier package. By digging deeper into “anthropologist territory” we could discover, perhaps, that the client doesn’t really need 15% more conference space, but rather more flexible conferencing solutions. The “AND” aspect pushes us to explore the idea further and not just settle for the raw data. This is the stuff we learn by observing, not just sifting through program spreadsheets. This is just one example of how we can use improv principles to enhance our approach to how we get to know our clients and push for the most appropriate workplace solutions.

As Designers, we’re not just in the business of designing nice spaces, we’re also shaping experiences. And the best way to shape someone else’s experience is to walk a mile in their shoes.

One Comment
  1. August 4th, 2010 - 5:59 am

    [...] Improv.  Is it just yuk-yuk, or could this be a useful design tool?  Mike McKeown finds out in this post. [...]

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